Release Date: September 2007
If you're a PC gamer, then you are practically drowning in options when it comes to playing FPSes. There are games with every possible gimmick, control scheme, and emphasis looking to cater to some gamer with very particular tastes. Call of Juarez is one more game from that school of thought, with an emphasis on storytelling, single-player campaign, and its Wild West setting. You can do a lot of the typical FPS stuff in Call of Juarez and experience it with a genre twist, and there are some things you can do in Call of Juarez that aren't possible in most other FPSes. It's intended as a fun FPS with a somewhat authentic elegance, full of gore and shootin' up bad guys. The single-player campaign pushes a tight story-driven campaign inspired by great Western films, while multiplayer offers co-op and deathmatch play with a Western flair.
The game takes place in 1882 and has two major protagonists, Ray and Billy. Ray is a retired preacher, inspired by Clint Eastwood's later roles, who loses his brother and sister-in-law under mysterious circumstances in a town called Hope. Ray suspects the murderer is Billy, a half-Native American Indian boy who lived in Hope and is always viewed with suspicion by the townsfolk. Billy is forced to go on the run in order to evade Ray and try and find the actual killers. The title phrase Call of Juarez refers to the treasure that the real killers are hunting, in which the word "Juarez" was painted in blood across the side of a barn where Ray's family members were found.
Players alternate between Ray and Billy as they go from level to level, and the two characters have different abilities. Ray is a pure gunslinger in the classic mold, while Billy gets some talents involving classic Native American abilities like tracking, using bows, and fighting on horseback. Likewise, in Ray's stages, you can use some unconventional tactics like setting buildings on fire to help achieve your objectives. The final build of the game will have "13 or 14" stages, according to Techland.
The levels are quite impressive to be the product of current-gen technology. One of the demos included a Billy level and a Ray level, each displaying a very different kind of an environment. Ray's level was a town at night, thinly illuminated by lights from the buildings and starlight. Objectives included rescuing hostages and flushing desperadoes out of buildings by setting the place on fire. Interestingly, the technological limitations of a 19th-century setting result in some unusual gameplay. Ray is limited by the ammo counts and range of his pistols, and it's impossible to use circle-strafing or other FPS techniques that call for automatic weapons. The closest you can get to automatic fire is shooting rapidly from the hip, which can reduce accuracy pretty dramatically. Still, Ray is pretty much a forward-assault character who excels at taking gunfights head-on and absorbing fire. Sipping whiskey causes Ray to regain health, similar to the hero of <i>Gun</i>.
A variety of real-world pistols can be picked up and used in either hand, all of which have their own pros and cons. The basic pistols that Ray starts off with have a fairly average damage, accuracy, and reload rate, while some may reload using a speed loader, and others might have slow reload time and refire rate but afford massive damage and accuracy. When using two pistols, each mouse button controls a hand, letting the player use his own strategies, such as putting a heavy-hitting pistol in one hand and a quicker pistol in the other. Ray can also use bread-and-butter Western weapons such as shotguns, rifles, and Molotov cocktails to help him even the playing field against better-equipped opponents.
In another demo, Ray gets confronted in his church by the town sheriff, who is then shot by a person in the mob behind him. Ray chases after the desperados into the nearby settlement, a picturesque example of any Wild West town at high noon. Tumbleweeds blow across the thin street with storefronts, porches, and barrels creating plenty of cover for both Ray and his opponents. The level was fairly fast-paced; if you weren't running from cover to cover while engaging the enemy and dodging fire from the balconies above, you were running through a burning building and trying to find an exit before the place went up in flames.
Billy's levels were wide-open outdoor areas that felt positively enormous and emphasized stealth skills. After washing up out of the river, Billy starts getting trained by a wandering Native American in using native fighting techniques. First, he's given a horse and told to go out to hunt rabbits in order to master his bow and arrow. The arrows arc realistically and have credible range, so hunting rabbits out in the California hills can take quite some time. On top of this, you have to compensate for whether you're on horseback or not. Arrows fly farther while you're on a horse, but it can be harder to line up a shot, and you have to be careful to target around your horse's head.
The landscape for this level is disarmingly realistic, down to the way light plays on leaves. You can get some truly striking views while on horseback at the top of the hills, and passing in and out of forested areas is a far more authentic experience than video games usually present. Aside from the bow, Billy's other signature weapon is a whip, which can be used as both a weapon and as a tool to traverse difficult terrain. Attacking wolves can be driven off or killed outright by a few cracks of the whip, but it is more useful when used to swing from just about any branch or tree limb. In one area of the game, Billy must scale a treacherously steep mountain by both leaping and using the whip to pull himself up to higher ledges. While we didn't get to see this in the demo level, Billy masters some stealth and tracking techniques at a later point.
Multiplayer is almost a completely different game in Call of Juarez. You don't play on the story level maps in multiplayer, and you don't use Billy or Ray. The multiplayer maps are designed to support up to 32 simultaneous players, and they offer FPS staples like deathmatch variants. Techland is playing with the Western premise to offer some novel spins on multiplayer action, though. Instead of capture the flag, there's a sort of looting mission where players form up into teams and try to quickly amass as much of the gold on the map as possible for their team, either by stealing it or slaughtering opponents. An objective-based mode allows you to play out famous moments from the history of the Wild West, presumably famous gunfights and robberies. A special co-op campaign lets players try to plan out and execute daring train robberies. All of maps are designed with an eye toward giving players terrain to incorporate into their plans in much the same way you have to use the environment in Ray and Billy's levels.
Right now, Call of Juarez is angling for a September release and is about 80% finished. During the demo, the Techland representative kept pointing out minor details that hadn't been completed yet, like the rain effects that are still missing from Ray's level. Despite this, it seemed remarkably playable, and there seems to be little doubt that the levels shown to us will be in the final product. Techland is heavily promoting Call of Juarez as the first true Wild West FPS, although all of the stealth aspects of Billy's game occasionally make it feel more like a strange hybrid than a true FPS game. Still, it's always good to see something different, if only slightly different, done with such a saturated genre.
Tony "OUberLord" Mitera also contributed to this preview.
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